Irish diplomacy: looking to the Continent

The Government shows little sign of grasping the scale of the post-Brexit shift required

German chancellor Angela Merkel and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Berlin last week. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

German chancellor Angela Merkel and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Berlin last week. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

 

Of all the Brexit-inspired mantras that government ministers have learned to repeat with robotic consistency, one in particular – that Ireland’s destiny is European – is at risk of sounding hollow. Ireland’s future is inarguably at the heart of Europe, and the loss of Dublin’s closest ally around the EU table must force this country to build new alliances and strengthen continental relationships that have been neglected for far too long. The problem, however, is that declarations of fealty to the EU project have not yet been accompanied by much evidence that the Government grasps the scale of the strategic shift that must now take place.

In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum, it was imperative to underline that Ireland had no intention of joining the British in the departure lane. The Government did that ably. It also beefed up embassies in Paris, Berlin and Brussels and has spent more time cultivating new allies along the EU’s northern liberal belt, in the Nordic and Benelux states in particular. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has made clear that while Ireland’s firm policy positions on issues such as farm subsidies or corporate tax won’t change, it accepts that EU membership is a two-way street.

Brexit requires a fundamental shift in Ireland’s cultural orientation, however. Dublin’s over-reliance on Britain at EU level was a function of a broader over-reliance on the Anglosphere as a source of ideas and ways of thinking. Across the public and private sectors, the dominant influence of the the US and the UK narrowed the country’s field of vision. When Mary Harney claimed in 2000 that “spiritually, we are probably a lot closer to Boston than Berlin”, she was quite accurately describing a specific culture that pervaded the inward-looking, largely monoglot Irish political elite of the past half-century.

Ministers talk a good talk on Ireland’s future in Europe. But Brexit will require the biggest strategic-cultural shift in Ireland’s foreign relations in half a century

Brexit provides an opportunity to open Ireland to new influences on our doorstep. It should be accompanied by massive investment in foreign language learning, in educational and career exchanges, and in the work of agencies such as Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia on the Continent. At political level, mentalities must change. Too often, Irish leaders have been reactive and defensive in their dealings with the EU. Berlin, which Varadkar visited last week for the first time since taking office, is still where taoisigh go looking for things. As with his single visit to Paris as Taoiseach, Varadkar spent mere hours in Germany last week – a striking contrast to his four-city, event-filled visit to the United States last week. At its most basic level, this sort of thing shows a tin ear for political symbolism.

Ministers talk a good talk on Ireland’s future in Europe. But Brexit will require the biggest strategic-cultural shift in Ireland’s foreign relations in half a century. The Government has yet to show that it grasps that.

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